(Region IV playoff pairings are at the bottom of this story.)
Whatever the endeavor, there’s a lot to be said for getting off to a good start. Then again, it’s not how you start, but how you finish, that counts in the end.
Anyone associated with the Steele football team would know something about the latter.
Facing a brutal schedule in the first half of their season, the Knights were 1-4 overall and 0-2 in District 27-6A before they beat New Braunfels to start a seven-game winning streak that has carried them to the third round of the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.
“We just needed to make a few adjustments,” senior running back Brenden Brady said Thursday, reflecting on how Steele broke out of its four-game skid. “We knew the talent we had on our team. We knew what we could be, and we just weren’t living up to it yet. The few mistakes we were making were mental mistakes and easy fixes. We eventually got it fixed.”
Steele (8-4) meets Weslaco East (9-3) in a Class 6A Division II game at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Alamodome. The Knights are 2-0 against the Wildcats, with both games coming in the playoffs. Steele won the first meeting 48-10 in 2014 and romped to a 56-0 blowout last year.
But don’t expect the Knights to be looking ahead to a potential matchup with highly regarded Austin Westlake in the state quarterfinals next week. Remember, this is a team that lost four consecutive games after beating Madison in its opener.
“The losses early in the season definitely humbled us,” Brady said. “This team’s mind is going each and every week to the next opponent, and that opponent only, so they’re (Weslaco East) definitely a good team.”
First-year head coach David Saenz has had no problem keeping his players’ attention this week.
“It’s a lot easier this year, it seems like, to keep them focused,” Saenz said. “We had a 1-4 start. We were humbled a little bit. But more importantly, these last seven weeks is about getting better each week, and getting better at the things that we do as a team and controlling what we do as a team, and not be worrying about who the opponent is.
“Yeah, we’re playing a Valley team, but it’s a very physical Valley team. We understand what type of ballgame we’re going to get into.”
The rough start this season was like a cold slap to the face for the Knights, who hadn’t lost more than one regular-season game in the same year since 2010, when they moved up to the UIL’s largest classification. After starting the 2010 season 1-2, Steele reeled off 13 consecutive victories and won the 5A Division II state title.
The Knights went 96-11 from 2010 through the end of last season, when they lost to Desoto in the 6A Division II state final. Steele also reached the title game in 2011, and lost in the state semifinals three other times during the seven-year span. Their earliest exit from the postseason was in 2013, when they were eliminated in the state quarterfinals.
The Knights began this season with a 36-3 rout of Madison, but lost a 34-31 heartbreaker to Austin Lake Travis the next week on a field goal with three seconds left. Losses to O’Connor (42-30), Smithson Valley (43-20) and Judson (35-28) followed on successive Fridays.
Steele’s four defeats came against opponents that finished the regular season a combined 36-4. Lake Travis, now 10-2, beat Judson (10-2) in the second round last week and O’Connor improved to 12-0 with a win over Reagan. Smithson Valley finished 10-2 after losing to Austin Westlake last week.
Despite losing four in a row, the Knights remained confident that they would turn around their season.
“Definitely,” Brady said. “Our goal every year is to have winning seasons and to go on to the playoffs and make deep runs and eventually try to make it to state. We knew that we started slow and we faced some adversity earlier in the season. We just wanted to not quit and keep fighting like the Steele Knights do.”
Although frustrated by the losses, the Knights never panicked, senior safety Caden Sterns said.
“Really, we just stayed calm,” Sterns said. “We knew what we were capable of. It was just a matter of putting it together. Like I said, we stayed calm and stayed patient. We knew our time was coming.
“It wasn’t about what happened at beginning start of the season. It’s obviously now, which is November, December time. We started to put those pieces together and making a puzzle that hopefully lead us to win state.”
With Smithson Valley, Judson and Clemens eliminated, Steele is the only 27-6A team still in the playoffs. The Knights surge has paralleled the steady improvement of freshman quarterback Wyatt Begeal, who has started since the second half of the 26-3 win over New Braunfels.
With Steele ahead only 6-0 at the half, Saenz decided to start Begeal at the start of the third quarter. Begeal completed 4 of 4 passes for 100 yards and hooked up with Sterns for a 63-yard touchdown pass. Onyx Smith, who had been the team’s starting quarterback since the start of the season, was moved back to his former position as a wide receiver.
“He’s a great kid,” Sterns said of Begeal. “He’s 14 about to be 15, and he’s dominating. He’s competing with 18-year-olds. To come in at midseason to a team that’s 1-4 is really nerve-racking for him, but he handled the situation correctly.
“I commend him on that and I’m very proud of him. Just watching him and (him) being able to pass and ball and lead the offense as a freshman, is something incredible. It’s going to be awesome to see him lead us to state.”
Begeal has completed 60 of 78 passes, with two interceptions, for 827 yards and eight TDs. Brady, who has committed to Rice, has rushed for 1,811 yards and 23 TDs on 230 carries.
Three other Steele players have committed to FBS schools: Sterns (Texas), cornerback JayVeon Cardwell (Oklahoma State) and wide receiver JT Woods (Baylor)
Region IV high school football playoff schedule
(All UIL teams are playing third-round games)
Class 6A Division I
O’Connor (12-0) vs. San Benito (12-0), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Buccaneer Stadium, Corpus Christi
Austin Lake Travis (10-2) at Los Fresnos (9-3), Saturday, 1 p.m.
Class 6A Division II
Steele (8-4) vs. Weslaco East (9-3), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Alamodome
Austin Westlake (12-0) vs. Edinburg Vela (12-0), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Gregory-Portland
Class 5A Division I
Angleton (11-0) vs. CC Flour Bluff (10-1), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Bobcat Stadium, San Marcos
CC Veterans Memorial (11-1) vs. Richmond Foster (7-4), Saturday, 2 p.m., Victoria
Class 5A Division II
Alice (9-3) vs. Austin McCallum (12-0), Saturday, noon, Alamodome
Kerrville Tivy (10-2) vs. Corpus Christi Calallen (12-0), Saturday, 4 p.m., Alamodome
Class 4A Division I
Canyon Lake (10-2) vs. Waco La Vega (12-0), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Reeves Stadium, Round Rock
China Spring (9-3) vs. Liberty Hill (9-2), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Buckley Stadium, Killeen
Class 4A Division II
Cuero (11-0) vs. Navarro (11-1), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Heroes Stadium
Sweeny (8-3) vs. Wimberley (11-1), Friday, 7 p.m., Brenham
Class 3A Division I
Van Vleck (6-4) vs. Yoakum (11-1), Saturday, 6 p.m., Legacy Stadium, Katy
Edna (8-4) vs. Goliad (10-1), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Victoria
Class 3A Division II
Lexington (12-0) vs. Tidehaven (11-0), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Hallettsville
East Bernard (10-1) vs. Boling (7-3), Friday, 7 p.m., Gilmer
Class 2A Division I
Yorktown (8-4) vs. Mason (12-0), Friday, 7 p.m., Edgewood Veterans Stadium
Refugio (10-1) vs. Holland (10-2), Friday, 7 p.m., Gustafson Stadium
Class 2A Division II
Burton (11-1) vs. La Pryor (9-2), Friday, 7:30 p.m., Matador Stadium, Seguin
Falls City (10-2) vs. Milano (11-1), Friday, 7 p.m., Shelton Stadium, Buda
TAPPS Division III state semifinals
Boerne Geneva (11-1) vs. Houston Cypress Christian (11-1), Friday, 7 p.m., Elgin